Changing up the board
Finally, the decks have been cleared for a thorough overhaul of the perennially troubled Toronto District School Board. Ontario’s education minister and the board itself must lose no time in putting Canada’s biggest school board on the right track.
Amajor obstacle was removed this past week with the announcement that the TDSB’s controversial director of education, Donna Quan, will depart on Dec.14 to assume a research job newly created for her by Queen’s Park.
If nothing else, this provides a chance for a fresh start at a board that has become a byword for institutional dysfunction. Things have calmed down since last year, when squabbling between Quan and trustees spiralled out of control. But finding a new education director better placed to create a culture of good governance and trust at the board is a vital step.
It’s also important that the government release a report conducted by former Ontario Human Rights Commission chair Barbara Hall, aimed at finding a “more effective governance structure” for the Toronto board. That report was ordered up at the beginning this year but has been languishing on the desk of Education Minister Liz Sandals since August.
Hall was asked to make recommendations that could include such far-reaching changes as restructuring the board, breaking it up into smaller units or having trustees appointed rather than elected. Before they name a successor to Quan, TDSB trustees need to know what direction their organization is going in.
Even without that, the board’s problems are so well-documented that it’s not hard to figure out the broad lines of how to move forward:
Once a solid interim education director has been named, the board should take the time to find a top-notch director who can heal wounds, infuse staff with enthusiasm for their jobs, and address the infighting, secrecy and mismanagement that has plagued the TDSB. It should not be difficult for such a large, metropolitan board to attract top talent, but it has proven incredibly hard for the TDSB. Quan’s successor will be the board’s sixth director of education since it was created in 1998, and all but one left amid controversy.
While the TDSB is large and unwieldy, the province should think hard before breaking it up. Smaller boards that draw less public scrutiny wouldn’t necessarily be an improvement. Instead, the focus should be on good leadership from a new director. And if Hall’s report does conclude that the board’s sheer size is problematic, Sandals could always opt to simply reduce the number of trustees (there are now 22).
The rules should be clarified to draw a clearer line between the role of trustees and that of senior staff. It’s not up to trustees to manage staff — other than the director herself. They shouldn’t meddle with the details of how individual schools are run. Their job is to provide good governance for a board that is responsible for $3 billion in spending, educating 232,000 students and running almost 600 schools. That’s more than enough to keep them busy.
The board and the new director should keep a tight watch on spending. Finances were a mess before veteran educator Margaret Wilson issued her own 13-point prescription for change at the TDSB back in January. Auditors found $1.3 million in unauthorized raises for senior staff, while trustees were billing taxpayers for everything from nuts to hand lotion. That followed an earlier Star investigation that found repair and maintenance expenses at TDSB schools to be outrageous, including $143 to install a pencil sharpener and $2,442 to mount a whiteboard on a wall.
Since the beginning of this year, Sandals has taken important steps to address the troubling climate of fear and mismanagement at the TDSB. She has seen that the recommendations in Wilson’s report were implemented, and she asked Hall to propose a new way of running the board.
Now the way is clear to fix this troubled organization. Hall’s report should be released so the public can assess whether the problems at the TDSB have been resolved. And naming a new director can put lingering conflicts to rest. There’s no time to lose.